How Do I Manage Feeling Overwhelmed By Japan?
April 23, 2015 4:05 PM   Subscribe

OverwhelmedByJapan-filter: I have at least a (solo) week in Japan en route to Indonesia, and despite referencing DVD's, youtube videos, guidebooks & internet, I'm still grossly lacking in confidence as to how I'm going to; use public transport, find my hotel, communicate with hotel staff, order food, and find a public restroom when required. To where do I turn? Is there possibly a service by which I can rent an English speaking guide (not like tourist, but more cultural) for an afternoon? Am I blowing this out of proportion?

I've travelled a reasonable amount, but only in the West (Europe, North & Central America) - never in a country in which I can't read signs let alone communicate verbally.
I guess I'm trying to weigh up here if the (what currently appears to be significant) amount of work required to conduct everyday tasks (washing/ eating/ sleeping/ finding restrooms) is worth investing for a 1 week trip (although I could stay longer if I could manage this anxiety).
I know - I'm not the 1st ever Western tourist to visit Japan, and maybe what I describe is a bit neurotic. But I'm also travelling alone, and I've been in situations before where I'm hungry and I can't read the menu, or I really need to use the restroom and can't find one - and honestly it's not only unpleasant but, well, isolating too. Hmm - I may also be worried about feeling isolated in Japan....
posted by forallmankind to Travel & Transportation around Japan (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Where exactly in Japan will you be? Many MANY people speak some amount of English and will want to practice their English with you, especially in big cities and/or college towns. And hotel staff will most certainly be able to speak some English.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:10 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've worked in Japan, and I don't read or speak Japanese. Restrooms use graphics, as well as words. (All police stations have public restrooms.) Many menus have pictures or the place will have plastic models of food. Signage often includes English. You can ask your hotel to write your destination and address in characters to show to taxi drivers.
Point and smile works pretty well, but many young people speak some English and often understand more than they speak.
You can also show people notes on your phone (Google Translate but there's probably an app that I don't know about.)
I found people to be quite friendly, and very helpful. At the fish market, several people walked around with me to point out interesting fish.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:14 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I recently went through a very similar experience. I spent a month in Japan in October after having only travelled in the west and, like you, I had many of the same anxieties about just how difficult day-to-day tasks might be.

Worry not!

In my experience, the Japanese were an incredibly accommodating people and genuinely want to help you at every turn. Many signs (and menus) are written with the roman alphabet so it's unlikely you'd be in a situation where you couldn't understand anything at all.

Also, if you are not of Japanese ethnicity, you will be immediately identifiable to locals as a non-speaker of Japanese. This is not something that automatically happens when you travel in Western Europe or the Americas. You'll find most interactions begin with the assumption that you likely need help finding your way or understanding a menu.
posted by bkpiano at 4:18 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

Japan is wonderful. People will go out of their way to understand you and help you get what you are asking for. Pointing goes a long way. Restaurants often have little models of the dishes out front, or pictures in the menus.
There is a fair amount of romaji signage in the Tokyo subway if you look. The ticket machines can be put into English mode - an old guy appeared out of nowhere and helped me figure it out.

If you do learn local phrases people will tend to actually understand you, which is certainly not the case in some other Asian languages (e.g Vietnamese).
posted by w0mbat at 4:19 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Are we talking about Tokyo or a rural town? You'll find a ton of English speakers, especially among younger people. While the quality of their English may vary somewhat, many people will be happy to speak as much English as they can for you.

Smartphones greatly simplify navigation, including public transit. If all else fails, you can always navigate by binary search. Stop a stranger on the street and ask for directions, pointing to it in writing as needed (your hotel will have a card you can carry). If they say a bunch of stuff you can't understand in Japanese, that's fine, just go in whatever direction they point. Walk a while, then ask another stranger. Repeat as needed. When they start pointing in opposite directions, you've passed your destination. Yes, I did manage to bother a decent number of people in a small Japanese town doing a scavenger hunt this way, but it works.
posted by zachlipton at 4:27 PM on April 23, 2015

Japan is one of the most tourist friendly countries I have ever been to. English signage is common, and public transport is generally colour coded and numbered as well.

Japanese people are generally super helpful to foreigners, and English is compulsory through high school, so everyone speaks a little even if they are uncomfortable doing so.

You will have a great time, one of my favourite destinations.
posted by smoke at 4:32 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Buy/bring a travel book (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Moon, whatever). This will help you in most places, with maps, and it's nice to have some basic instructions written out for you about how some things work.

I have only been in Tokyo but there was plenty of English signage and online maps and people were very helpful. I've been much more overwhelmed in other places. For some reason, my phone mapping system was not very useful on the street even though I believed I had an international system. Having an actual map (like you'll find in travel books) would have been nice. I tried using a book for kindle and I regretted it, wishing I'd had a print book travel guide instead.
posted by vunder at 4:40 PM on April 23, 2015

You'll be fine. Tokyo in particular is very tourist friendly - many people speak English, many signs are in English.

If you're worried about feeling isolated, consider staying in backpacker hostel-type accomodation. Japanese hostels are the best I have ever seen - super clean and comfortable, and you'll meet lots of people - Japanese and otherwise -who are friendly and welcoming. One hostel chain I found particularly good was K's House.

But, as others have said, Japan is extremely welcoming to tourists.

The Google translate app should be very helpful with Japanese only signs - it can translate images of text, including Japanese.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:50 PM on April 23, 2015

Is it still doing it one word at a time?
posted by brujita at 4:55 PM on April 23, 2015

I'm agreeing with everyone. When I was there I hesitated going into restaurants where the menu was entirely in Japanese, mostly because I was afraid of what the bill would come to, but there were so many restaurants with pictures on the menus. And it is such a culture of politeness that you are never made to feel embarrassed if you don't know where to go or what's going on.

The public transportation in Tokyo is fantastic and fun and there are always people there to help. And since you apparently will not have any work responsibilities there, who cares if you get somewhere an hour later because you took the wrong train? It's all interesting.

And there are plenty of public restrooms with signs.

If you happen to go to Kyoto (which is not a bad thing to do -- you can take a bullet train from Tokyo, passing by Mt. Fuji), I recommend this tour -- it's cheap and in English and will help you feel less alone.

Really I think Japan is a great place to travel alone, because it is different and fascinating but all the "amenities" that "we're" used to are there.
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:57 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Most train stations will have English signage and the local ticket machines have should have a button to change it to English. The staff at the Shinkansen ticket counters will speak English.

I found the hotel staff I dealt with had good English.

If you go to any of the big tourist attractions there will probably be school children that want to interview you as part of their school assignments or university students looking for tourists to help as part of their English language club so you can ask them any questions you have.

The only problem with rest rooms in Japan is if you're female and not used to squat toilets but even then there are one or two Western style ones in most of them. I have no idea what male restrooms look like in Japan.

Most people are happy to help tourists and I don't think you'll have any problems.

Ganbatte Kudasai!
posted by poxandplague at 4:59 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Spending a week in Tokyo was my first trip I ever took solo and I had similar anxiety but it was unwarranted. I found traveling solo in Japan to be one of the most stress-free experiences ever.

The best tip, and that would also address most of your concerns is to rent a wifi hotspot. It's a small phone-sized device that works through the local cell data and gives you a local wifi signal for your phone to use. The one I used costs about 1300yen a day from Softbank. They have kiosks at major airports so you can pick it up right when you land and have internet going into the city.

With fast internet on your phone you can then have Google Maps that takes care of all your navigation with GPS, with excellent subway directions, find info on local attractions, etc. It's both practically a huge help on getting information on what to do, where to eat, and also was very reassuring that I knew at any time I myself could find out exactly I was and how to get home.

With regards to your concerns on communicating - any hotel will 100% have serviceable English (assuming we're talking about large cities). For ordering food or otherwise, most Japanese menus have photos, so you can just point, or point at other people's food. About half of the restaurants knew English and the smaller ones were really patient and understanding with gestures and such. You'd be surprised at how far that gets you, and I'm someone that generally is not very sociable alone. As a last resort use a translator app on the phone with your data signal but I never had to do that.

Don't worry about restrooms/washrooms. Expect more then any large North American city (there's always a hotel, Starbucks, McDonald's, or large department store). The signs are the same.

I had exactly your concerns and anxieties before the trip, I find Japan (especially Tokyo) is an ideal place to start traveling solo. Many, many people eat by themselves out, locals are very polite and hospitable to foreigners, there's a huge variation of things to do solo, and short distances to travel all by subway. I wholeheartedly recommend it and know you'll have a good time.
posted by artificialard at 4:59 PM on April 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

Nthing that if you're going to visit a country where you can't read or speak the language, Japan is a great one to visit. Everyone is REALLY friendly.

If you're feeling isolated, hook up with a tour group. I've taken the JTB Sunrise tours before and they're good. Japanican is another good resource. You'll have a guide who speaks English and a bunch of impromptu acquaintances from around the world to socialize with.

I know tours get some flack for being speedy or inauthentic. But I think they're pretty great if you're not feeling sure of yourself. They're great for a solo traveler. And they can usually get you to places easier than you can do yourself. Japanican has ones where you can find specific experiences you'd like to try... make sushi, go to a tea ceremony, go to a festival...
posted by Caravantea at 5:05 PM on April 23, 2015

Oh! Nthing ArtificialLard. I did that on my last trip and it was great to have google maps and my e-mail!
posted by Caravantea at 5:07 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oooh oooh! Please check out for restaurants, etc.
posted by cyndigo at 6:27 PM on April 23, 2015

I'm going to go against the ride and affirm that, yes, you will pretty much be illiterate in Japan. But I do agree with others that it need not be a stressful disaster. People at counters tend to understand at least some English, especially the younger folk. Just give yourself enough time to get between places.

It did help me to learn some of the basic symbols. By the end of 3 weeks I was master of "train station", "adult fare" (for buses), "Tokyo", and a few other places/things. My hack for finding the right train in the big stations was to point to my ticket, shrug hopefully at someone, and wait for them to point me. Commuter stations were where I really needed to make an attempt at reading place names. It was doable though, and on the fly. (I wasn't precisely prepared For my trip!)
posted by zennie at 6:47 PM on April 23, 2015

Memail me if you need any detailed help. In fact, send me a message either way! I'd love to meet up!!

I often see western tourists looking a bit lost, and I'll ask them if they need help. Sometimes there will be someone else helping them before I can.

In anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the entire country is becoming more tourist friendly. There are a lot of translation services available now at train stations and convenience stores.
posted by xmts at 8:10 PM on April 23, 2015

I once asked (well, pantomimed to) a Tokyo streetsweeper where I could find a post office. She took me, by the hand, to a convenience store, ordered stamps for me, and then led me to a mailbox.

Just my anecdote to join the chorus above, but I think you'll be fine.

(Tho I did have a bit of trouble with the metro, thanks to its three different operators, despite a decent amount of English signage.)
posted by charlemangy at 8:42 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two more things to assuage your concerns:

1. English is accepted almost everywhere. While not everyone speaks our language, of course, there're decent odds you can find someone who speaks a little. It's the Intl language today, and that's true in Asia almost as much as it is in the West. I remember my Korean gf speaking English first to a hotel clerk in Fukuoka, despite their countries proximity (and history). That's true in lots of places around the world. Some survival Japanese will help, but generally ppl will try and help you and find the English speakers you need.

2. Japan is rich and polite. You don't need to worry abt hustlers trying to cheat you, as you might in SE Asia or other lesser-developed parts of the world. This is something I often worry about when I'm clueless in a new country. But in Japan, folks are genuinely helpful (see above), and I can't recall anyone trying to use my foreigness against me. It's a forgiving place as a Western traveler, I'd say.
posted by charlemangy at 9:14 PM on April 23, 2015

use public transport

Public transport is set up so a six-year old can travel alone, so everything in kanji has subtitles in kana and Roman alphabet.

I recommend you to look up train routes in Wikipedia or Hyperdia so you can follow how many stations you still have until your destination. You can save Wikipedia pages as PDFs that you can read on your smartphone or ebook reader (more battery power).

find my hotel

That's a problem even native Japanese have, that's why every Japanese website has a map somewhere showing the store or hotel location from the nearest train or metro station. PRINT IT or download it up to your smartphone/ ebook reader/ etc. Get used to instructions like "turn right after the Familymart on the corner".

Google Maps helps a lot. If there's an area you want to visit, take a screenshot, print the map and annotate it.

find a public restroom

In my experience, try to find a McDonald's. They have Western toilets, unlike your average train station (for example).
posted by sukeban at 11:51 PM on April 23, 2015

If you're worried, you can start an itinerary or look at others on Japan-Guide. If you're staying in Tokyo, in addition to there's also Sunny Pages.

If you're worried about the language, try watching these NHK Japanese videos. They're old, but they're the best ones to me: found here. I like these better than a phrase book because you get the question AND the answer. There's also a point and speak phrasebook.

I've been to Tokyo several times and my Japanese is lousy, but the videos and careful planning really helped. If you get lost, just stand somewhere and hold a map. Within 5-15 minutes someone will approach you to help.

If you're still overwhelmed, there's the Tokyo Free Guide volunteers but you have to book in advance.

For everything else (including transport) I also suggest the sidebar of the Japan Travel subreddit.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 4:25 AM on April 24, 2015

Everyone is right on as far as friendliness etc. However, I definitely had moments in my trip to Japan where I was overwhelmed and just needed to sit quietly, look up some words or a map, and eat something that wasn't an unexpected flavor. So here's my tips on what to do if/when you actually do get overwhelmed.

-7-11's and similar convenience stores are everywhere, and Japan has a wonderful supply of junk food and identifiable fruit drinks and sodas. Yeah, you don't want to live on prepackaged single-serving chocolate chip cookies, but if a menu feels like too much in that moment, convenience stores are easy to find and much nicer than in the US. Other good places to find your bearings that are widely available and easily identifiable are bakeries/cafes/donut shops and benches at children's playgrounds or temple grounds.

- It's okay to go back to the hotel and be done for the day at 2pm. My husband and I got pretty good at giving each other a heads-up that we were getting close to our limit; and this is even easier to do on your own. Due to the time change, we mostly didn't make it to dinnertime but had some lovely early-morning walks around the hotel's neighborhood.

-"Toilet" is a word for "bathroom" in Japanese. Easy peasy to ask for.

- A nice apology, learned phonetically, goes over pretty well. I had a frustrating misunderstanding at a ticket counter which involved having to hand over a "used" ticket in order to purchase one for another destination. When we (finally) figured each other out, I apologized and bowed and the guy brightened and complimented me on my Japanese, in spite of the fact that we'd spent the previous 5 minutes pointing and shrugging.

- If you're still trying to decide where to stay, I'd recommend not staying in the busiest parts of town. When we went to Shinjuku I was in instant sensory overload. We stayed at this place in a little neighborhood a 5 minute walk from a non-transfer point subway station, and it was really nice to be able to kind of ramp up in intensity in the mornings. Also, if you stay at a smaller place, asking for help with trains or whatever doesn't feel like as much of an imposition.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:52 AM on April 24, 2015

Echoing the general sentiment here. The only major problem I had was trying to go through customs when they discovered I hadn't booked a hotel for the night. This really threw the agent. I don't know if the policy has changed but back then (2004) it was multiple frowns, head tilts, and disbelief.
posted by user92371 at 7:05 AM on April 24, 2015

My husband and I, who don't speak any Japanese, spent three weeks in Japan--Tokyo, Miyajima, Kyoto, Takayama--over the New Year and got along just fine. The only problem we had with making ourselves understood was when we found a phone someone had dropped and went to turn it in at the parking attendant's office. I ended up taking out my phone and using Google Translate, which worked well enough that he understood.

If you get lost, the universal sign for "I am lost" is to stand on a street corner with a map out, peering at it. Within a short period of time--in at least one case, instantaneously--a helpful Japanese person will materialize and point out the way. (In one case, we had already determined what route we wanted to take to our destination shrine, and when the helpful person materialized we had to start off the way he pointed out and change direction once we got out of sight, because the way he pointed out to us was iced over and I have balance problems, but it was all good in the end.)
posted by telophase at 7:43 AM on April 24, 2015

Since bathrooms have been brought up... There may not be toilet paper or hand towels provided at public restrooms. Bring tissues. I don't mean to scare you; but rather to arm you.
posted by SandiBeech at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, at almost every restaurant we went into, even if they had an English menu outside the door, the server brought over an English menu. If you go to a department store, they'll usually have a floor or two of restaurants, usually near the top of the building, and you can browse through the window displays and menus outside to see what you want to eat and how much it costs.

I booked only hotels that had English-language websites (for my own ease of booking!), and found that all of them had desk staff that knew enough English to talk with us, make restaurant recommendations, and call places that didn't speak English to ask questions for us. I wouldn't necessarily expect this if I were the sort to just show up and try to book a hotel on the day I arrived, but my habit of booking in advance via websites worked fine. I would suggest advance booking if you're nervous about finding a place to stay: it eases the mind considerably.

Restrooms are easy to find--all train stations and department stores have them, and every one we saw had stick-figure signs indicate men or women. If you're picky about squat vs. sit (I have knee problems, so am very picky about this!) most train stations are squatters, but the big stations usually have a few sitters and handicapped stalls are sitters. You might need to look into the stalls to see which type they are, but there's usually a little picture on the door or a little map at the entrance to the restroom that show which ones are squat/Japanese and which ones are stand/Western. In my experience, department stores always have Western toilets, even if they have a few Japanese-style ones.

Restaurant bathrooms are a crapshoot as to whether they're Western or Japanese-style, but most of the ones we found were Western.

Nicer hotels have Western-style toilets in the lobby restrooms, and while I was fully prepared to bull my way through by pretending not to speak any language they spoke if a hotel attendant tried to stop me from going into a lobby bathroom when I wasn't a guest at the hotel, it never happened.

BRING YOUR OWN HAND TOWEL. I cannot emphasize this enough. 90% of bathrooms will not have paper towels or a hand dryer (many of them won't have soap, either). Japanese people pretty much all carry their own small hand towels around. (On preview: jinx!)

Thee are tons of guides you can hire, and even a free service. Just book them in advance.
posted by telophase at 9:18 AM on April 24, 2015

Another pointer for restrooms - any pachinko parlor (if you can stand the cigarette smoke).
posted by Rash at 9:20 AM on April 24, 2015

I studied Japanese for several years before going to Japan, and I felt a bit disappointed when I reached Tokyo. There was a lot of signage in English, and many persons were happy to speak in English with me. I think I practiced my English more than my Japanese!

Buy your tiny hand towel when you arrive, most gift stores/convenience stores (combini) sell them. Get a portable guide; I've used Lonely Planet's and it signals restaurants with English menus. A Japan Rail Pass (or a JR East pass if you'll be mostly near Tokyo) makes things easier, as you can take any JR trains just by flashing it, instead of using the complicated-looking (but not really) ticket machines. If you have a smartphone, Hyperdia gives you public transport routes. I used it several times every day, and I didn't get lost once!

Use a Limousine Bus to get from the airport to your hotel and viceversa. Super easy.

The Tokyo Systematized Goodwill Guide Club offers free or low-cost tours in English. Haven't used them myself, though.

Japan is a very tourist friendly country. I'm sure you'll have a great time!
posted by clearlydemon at 9:55 AM on April 24, 2015

Use small words. "Train to Osaka? Tickets?" gets you much farther than "sorry to bother but could you please point me to the Osaka train and where we can get tickets to ride on it later today?"

Be comfortable with pointing.
If you have dietary restrictions get them written down in Japanese for you.
If the bill has a surprise cover charge on it, or if you point at a more expensive menu item than you thought, or the ticket has a seat reservation you didn't need, sometimes you'll pay a bit more than if you do more research ahead of time. I just called it dumb tourist tax. :)
posted by Lady Li at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2015

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